Gamecocks Ready for First Round of NCAA Tournament Friday Night
South Carolina will face No. 10 Colorado State at 8 p.m. ET
SEATTLE, WASH. – South Carolina volleyball begins its NCAA tournament run on Friday night in Seattle, as it faces No. 10 Colorado State (29-1) in the first round of the tournament at 8 p.m. ET. The opening regional is hosted by the University of Washington, who faces Winthrop in the second pairing of the weekend. The match against the Rams will air for free online, follow this FREE LIVE STREAM link to access the feed. The Gamecocks (19-11) are in their second postseason in as many years under head coach Tom Mendoza.
2019 SEASON NOTABLES
- Carolina finished the regular season with eight wins over its final 11 matches to earn an at-large bid. The Gamecocks went 19-11 overall for the year and 11-7 in SEC play – the most since 2008. The team’s RPI heading into the tournament is 43.
- The team’s resume includes one RPI top-50 win and five wins against teams in the RPI top-100. The team played 10 matches against the RPI top 25, and while it didn’t come out on top in any of those matchups, the “worst” loss the team suffered all season came against Georgia, which finished with a RPI of 31.
- Tom Mendoza now stands at 39-21 through two seasons as head coach, he is the first Gamecock head coach since Kim Hudson in 1993 to guide the team to postseasons in each of their first two seasons.
- Senior Mikayla Shields and junior Mikayla Robinson earned All-SEC honors, making the 18-woman team together for the second year in a row. Shield is the first three-time All-SEC honoree since Shonda Cole in 2006, Robinson collected her second all-conference honor.
- Shields ranks ninth in the SEC for hitting percentage and is tenth in kills, making her the only pin hitter in the conference to rank in the top ten for both categories. Despite attempting over 200 more attacks than any other player on the roster this season, her .324 hitting percentage is the sixth highest for any member of the program in the rally-scoring era and higher than any other Gamecock pin hitter in the era.
- Shields’ 379 kills ranks seventh-most for a single season in the program’s rally-scoring era, and she stepped up her game in SEC play, averaging 3.75 kills, 2.44 digs, 0.41 aces and 0.72 blocks per set in 18 matches.
- Robinson enjoyed a career year on offense and defense, totaling 2.42 kills and 1.24 blocks per set with a .338 hitting percentage. The junior’s 130 total blocks (26 solo) are the second-most by any member of the program in the rally-scoring era and ranks 45th nationally, and her 26 solo blocks were the most of any SEC blocker.
- In conference matches only, Robinson totaled 96 blocks, more than any conference rival despite the team playing the second-fewest sets (61) in SEC play. Those 96 blocks in conference matches only are more than any member of the program in the rally-scoring era, she also set the record for solo blocks (18). On offense, her .338 hitting percentage is the fourth-highest for a single season in the program’s rally-scoring era, and highest since 2008.
SEATTLE REGIONAL NOTABLES
- South Carolina volleyball will be on the West Coast playing in the Pacific Time Zone for the first time since 2003. According to program records, the Gamecocks have never played in the Pacific Northwest
- South Carolina is making its eighth NCAA tournament trip in program history (1984, 1995, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2018). The Gamecocks have advanced to the second round five times but have not reached the Sweet 16 yet. This is the first time making the postseason in back-to-back years since 2002.
- The team faces Colorado State (29-1) in the first round of the tournament. The Rams have a Carolina connection; current assistant coach Adrianna Culbert played beach volleyball at South Carolina as a graduate transfer in 2017, and then served on the indoor coaching staff for the fall of 2017.
- South Carolina’s only other meeting with the Rams came in the opening round of the 1998 NCAA tournament. The Gamecocks lost in five sets to CSU in the Austin, Texas regional (Dec. 4, 1998).
- A win over Colorado State would be the biggest win in over 13 years for the program, not just because it means moving on to round two. The last time South Carolina defeated a top-10-ranked opponent was No. 6 Florida back on Sept. 17, 2006.
- In the second round, the Gamecocks would face either host Washington or Big South Champions Winthrop. It would be the second meeting ever with the Huskies (last met in 1998), and 38th meeting with the Eagles (last in 2016). Winthrop has more than just a Palmetto State connection; 2018 South Carolina graduate Courtney Furlong serves on the coaching staff at Winthrop.
SCOUTING #10 COLORADO STATE (29-1)
The Rams fell just short of earning a chance to host the opening weekend of the tournament, but enter postseason play ranked 10th in the latest AVCA coaches top-25 poll. The team is on the longest win streak in the country – 28 games – with its lone loss coming at home to California on Aug. 31. The Rams have won 20 or more matches in every season dating back to 1995, and will be competing in their 25th-consecutive national tournament, the seventh-longest streak in the NCAA. Colorado State boasts the nation’s top defense, holding opponents to just a .104 hitting percentage – the lowest among all 332 Division I programs. The Rams also rank fourth in the country with 2.96 blocks per set. It isn’t just their defense that has powered them to a 28-game winning streak, as the offense ranks ninth in the country with a .284 hitting percentage and 41st with 13.67 kills per set.
Individually, senior setter Katie Oleksak is a three-time Mountain West Player of the Year and guides an offense that boasts four different hitters with over 200 kills so far this season. Pin hitter Breana Runnels leads the way with 3.74 kills per set, followed by 6-foot-6-inch middle hitter Kirstie Hillyer’s 2.87 kills per set with a .412 hitting percentage. On defense, Hillyer (1.32 blocks per set) and fellow middle Paulina Hougaard-Jensen (1.38 blocks/set) lock down the net, while libero Alexa Roumeliotis cleans up the back line with 4.03 digs per set.
SCOUTING #9 WASHINGTON
As the host of the regional, the ninth-ranked Huskies will play Winthrop following the Carolina/Colorado State match Friday night. Washington is the number eight seed overall in the tournament, earning the bid after a 24-6 regular season record that included 15 wins in the Pac-12 conference. The Huskies are in their 18th-straight NCAA tournament, the eighth-longest active streak nationally, and are hosting for the seventh time in the last eight years. Washington is powered by senior left-side hitter Kara Bajema, who averages 4.46 kills per set, and rank 14th nationally with a team average of 2.73 blocks per set.
The Gamecocks won’t be the only Palmetto State representative in Seattle, as Big South champion Winthrop will also head west for the Washington Regional. The Eagles are back in the tournament for the first time since 2006, and are 24-4 overall with a 14-0 record in conference play. The Eagle offense may be one of the most diverse in the country, with eight different attackers reaching triple digits for kills this season. Nikkia Benitez leads the way with 3.00 kills and 3.21 digs per set.
In the final 10 matches of the regular season…
- The Gamecocks went 7-3, including a 4-1 record in road matches.
- The team out-hit opponents, .285 to .236, but opponents are averaging slightly more kills per set. Individually, Mikayla Shields has been tearing it up on offense, averaging 4.36 kills per set with a .387 hitting percentage.
- The offense has been spread out, with six hitters posting 30 or more kills. Courtney Koehler is averaging 10.36 assists per set leading the offense.
- The team’s blocking numbers have been incredible, with 90 in the last 10 matches. Mikayla Robinson has contributed 54 blocks in that span on her own, the exact same amount as the team’s 10 opponents combined.
- Opponents have found success in the serve game, averaging 1.39 aces per set against the Gamecocks. Carolina has struggled to score off its serve, with just 1.18 aces per set to close out the season.
BRYANT HEATING UP ENTERING POSTSEASON PLAY
Addie Bryant’s arrival to South Carolina last season was a major part in the team’s turn-around performance in 2018, and now as the team’s full-time libero, the senior from San Antonio, Texas is blossoming. Her 35 digs against the Razorbacks on Oct. 13 in the third-highest total in the program’s 47-year history, behind Hannah Lawing (38 vs. Mississippi St., 11/13/2010), Sarah Cline (36 vs. Arkansas, 11/2/2007) and Jodi Thompson (36 vs. Louisiana Tech, 9/19/1992). While the performance at Arkansas was no doubt her most memorable match as a Gamecock, it also represents a big jump she has made in SEC play. Bryant averaged 3.18 digs per set with a .958 serve reception percentage in non-conference play, but in conference matches she is at 4.31 and .973, respectively. Among all Gamecocks in the rally-scoring era with at least 400 serve receptions in a season, Bryant’s .967 percentage over 523 receptions is the highest.
GAMECOCKS MAKE HISTORY WITH WEEKLY HONORS
For the first time since 2002, South Carolina volleyball had an individual recognized as the SEC Player of the Week, as junior Mikayla Robinson earned both the overall Player of the Week, and the Defensive Player of the Week awards on Nov. 25. Robinson had an epic weekend of production as a blocker, totaling 23 blocks in eight sets in road wins at Georgia and at Auburn.
It is the second time the West Dundee, Ill. native has been honored by the conference office, and fourth overall for her career. Only Juliette Thévenin (2010-13) has as many conference awards in a career. The last member of the program to earn Player of the Week was Sam Alban on Oct. 15, 2002.
Friday night in Athens, Robinson racked up 14 total blocks (five solo) in the team’s five-set upset of the Bulldogs on the road, the most by any SEC student-athlete this season and ties her for the third-highest single-game total in conference history. It is the second-highest total by any member of the program in its 48-year history, and most since Libby Ralston set the program record with 16 against Jacksonville on Sept. 6, 1991. Robinson now has two matches this season with double-digit blocks, and her five solo blocks are the second-most in a match in program history and most by any Gamecock since Teresa Stenlund against Lipscomb on Sept. 11, 2010.
She stayed locked in for the team’s road finale on Sunday, blocking nine balls in the team’s sweep at Auburn (two solo). Robinson accounted for 23 of the team’s 34 total blocks for the weekend, pushing the team to two road wins. Despite playing the second-lowest set total among SEC rivals in conference play (54 sets), Robinson now has 12 more blocks in conference matches than any other individual. Her 90 blocks in SEC matches alone is just nine fewer than what she had all of last season (in 112 sets).
Coupled with Robinson’s Offensive Player of the Week, McKenzie Moorman’s Freshman of the Week on Oct. 28, and Claire Edwards’ Defensive Player of the Week recognition on Sept. 9, South Carolina has a single-season record for most weekly awards earned in a single season.
VASTINE GROWS INTO LARGER ROLE IN 2019
Junior Jess Vastine saw her role expand greatly in head coach Tom Mendoza’s first year leading the program, developing more into a six-rotation left side attacker. Now in her second year with the defined role, the Wittmann, Ariz. native has made another big jump in production across the board, with single-season highs for service aces (24), attacks (664), digs (210) and kills (200). Vastine also leads the team’s serve receive defense with 652 receptions, weathering the 6.15 receptions per set with a .952 reception percentage. Her reception total is the fifth highest for any Gamecock in the rally-scoring era, and her reception percentage ranks 13th for the era.
Last season, Mikayla Shields became the fifth junior in the program’s 47-year history to make it to 1,000 career kills in three seasons or less. She is 15th member of the program ever to reach 1,000 kills, and the fourth-fastest (making it in her 80th career game). Currently, Shields ranks fourth for career kills in the program record book and 19th among all active Division I attackers (1st among opposite/right side attackers). In the regular season finale against Arkansas on Nov. 29, she reached 1,500 kills, the fourth member of the program to do so.
It isn’t just her production that’s impressive, Shields is also in rare company when it comes to efficiency. She stands at 3,574 career attacks going into the weekend, something only three other members of the program have achieved. Despite the workload, Shields still maintains a career hitting percentage of .297, good for seventh in program history (minimum 1,200 attacks). Among the six Gamecocks with over 3,000 attacks, only program legend Lori Rowe (1983-86) also ranks in the top ten for hitting percentage. Shields is also the only pin hitter in the SEC to rank in the top 10 for hitting percentage, and also is the only individual in the conference to sit in the top 10 in both kills per set and hitting percentage.
KOEHLER SETTING HER SIGHTS ON SC RECORDS
Senior Courtney Koehler has rocketed through the record book in season four running the offense. Against Charlotte on Sept. 10, she surpassed Taylor Bruns’ record for most career assists in the rally-scoring era (since 2001), and against Auburn on Nov. 24 she passed 3,500 career assists. Only four other Gamecocks in the program’s 47-year history have reached 3,500. Scratching the top overall spots from sideout-scoring-era legends Ashley Edlund (1995-98) and Megan Hosp (1999-02) is out of reach, but Koehler did pass Jodi Thompson (1991-94) for the number five spot in the program’s all-time history in the win over Tennessee on Oct. 25 and needs just eight more assists to pass Julie Morrison (1984-87, 3,602 assists).
WHEN THE GAMECOCKS WIN…
- The team is out-hitting the opposition .295 to .163, with Mikayla Robinson posting a .387 hitting percentage in wins compared to .254 in losses.
- The team averages almost twice as many aces per set in wins than in losses (1.48 to 0.76). The trio of Claire Edwards, Mikayla Shields and Jess Vastine lead the way; they combine for 67 aces in the 19 wins but just 16 in the 11 losses.
- Mikayla Shields’ kill totals are somewhat comparable win (3.71) or lose (3.32), but her efficiency increases considerably in wins. She has hit .246 in the team’s losses compared to .370 in the wins.
- Robinson averages 1.41 blocks per set in wins and the team combined averages 2.65. Opponents total just 1.75 blocks per set, and the Gamecock offense commits just 2.15 unforced (unblocked) attacking errors per set in wins.
WHEN THE GAMECOCKS LOSE…
- The defense is allowing opponents to hit .297 in losses. Dating back to last season, the team is 36-2 when out-hitting its opponents, 3-17 when it does not.
- Opponents have exploited the serve game to an extreme degree in losses, with 41 more total aces than Carolina and over a full ace per set more (1.86 to 0.76) while committing just seven more errors.
- The left side attack has scuffled in losses, with the quartet of Jess Vastine, Britt McLean, McKenzie Moorman and Alicia Starr combining for a .117 hitting percentage and 3.86 kills per set.
- The opposition has a higher block total in Gamecock losses, but the Carolina also commits one more unforced attack error per set in losses than in wins.
EDWARDS PEAKING IN SENIOR CAMPAIGN
Year four has been a good one for Claire Edwards, who is on pace for a career year on offense and defense. Entering the postseason, Edwards is averaging highs for points per set (2.43) and hitting percentage (.320) and has a new personal best for aces (19) and blocks (103) in a single season. Her block total going into Friday night is one away from moving her into the top 10 for the most in a single season in the program’s rally-scoring era. The Columbia, S.C. native also earned SEC Defensive Player of the Week honors in September, the first weekly honor of her career.
SERVING GAME REMAINS FOCAL POINT IN 2019
Despite bringing back all six position players for the fall, South Carolina had to replace a key member of last year’s tournament team. Libero Aubrey Ezell graduated as the program’s third-ranked contributor for service aces, pitching in 212 during her four years on campus, including a career-high 75 last fall. Her career total was double that of any other member during the program’s rally-scoring era, and she guided 2018’s team to its highest combined ace total since 2006 (173). Of the six starters returning this year (Edwards, Koehler, McLean, Robinson, Shields, Vastine), only Shields and Koehler had career ace totals above 60.
After a slow start to the season, the team has stabilized both its serve and serve reception games as conference play enters the home stretch. In non-conference play, the team committed 115 service errors (2.56 per set) and yielded 1.67 aces per set to opponents. Entering tournament play, the team is still committing a healthy amount of errors, but have jumped to a higher aces per set average (1.23) while cutting opponent ace averages down to 1.34.
Individually, three Gamecocks have surpassed their previous single-season highs for aces: Shields (40 this season, previous high of 29), Vastine (24 this season, previous high of 11), and Edwards (19 this season, previous high of 14).
MENDOZA SIGNS TWO IN NOVEMBER PERIOD
The Gamecocks added two new members to the program, with Ellie Ruprich (Beverly Hills, Mich.) and Kiune Fletcher (El Dorado, Trinidad and Tobago) signing during the November period. Both will be four-year student-athletes for South Carolina.
Ruprich lettered in volleyball, basketball and lacrosse at Birmingham Groves High School. She is a 2019 AAU All-American, after leading her Legacy Volleyball Club’s 17s team to a fifth-place finish at AAU National and USAVB Nationals. Earlier this month, she also was named to the AVCA High School All-Region 5 Team.
Fletcher has family ties that brings her to Columbia – her cousin is current senior Mikayla Shields. She is the youngest member of the Trinidad and Tobago national team, making the roster for the 2018 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championship in Japan and the 2019 Pan American Cup. Despite being just 17, she earned the role of captain in the team’s recent run at the NORCECA Women’s Continental Cup.
With the 18-game SEC season in the books, South Carolina finished with just 61 sets played, thanks to 14 of those matches finishing in just three sets. Since the conference went to an 18-match format in 2013, the lowest team set total is 59 for SEC play, accomplished in 2013. Among conference teams, only last-place Auburn played fewer sets (59). Overall, the team has played beyond three sets just 10 times total, compared to 15 times in 2018 and 20 in 2017.
PROGRAM GREAT CALLY PLUMMER ENSHRINED in 2019 HALL OF FAME CLASS
Volleyball alumna Cally Plummer (1998-2002) was inducted as part of the nine-member class for the 2019 University of South Carolina Athletics Hall of Fame on Thursday, Oct. 17. She is the fourth member of the program to be honored, and one of just 187 members total across all sports in the Hall of Fame’s 52-year history. Plummer is one of just four Gamecocks in program history to be a four-time All-SEC performer. As a right-side attacker, Plummer is still the program’s all time in career aces, and ranks fifth in career kills and sixth in career attacks. For her career she finished with 1,295 kills, 233 aces, 956 digs, and 270 blocks, and the Gamecocks made the NCAA tournament in all four of her seasons on the court. Previous alumnae in the Hall of Fame are Ashley Edlund (1995-98), Heather Larkin (1994-97) and Shonda Wallace (Cole) (2003-06).
ALL TIME RECORDS
- South Carolina holds an 836-651 (.562) all-time record, dating back to 1973. The team’s 800th win of all time came on Aug. 25, 2018 against Clemson.
- The Gamecocks joined the SEC for volleyball in 1991, and have an all-time conference record of 205-279 (.423). The 200th SEC win came on Nov. 8 at Mississippi State.
- In matches in the Carolina Volleyball Center, Carolina is 211-116 (.644) overall and 108-99 (.521) in SEC matches.
- Tom Mendoza became the program’s 13th head coach on Jan. 3, 2018. This is his fourth season overall as a head coach, with a career record of 86-39 (.688) and a record of 39-21 at South Carolina. He has led his teams to the NCAA tournament in all four years as a head coach.